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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is sometimes described as a control freak – but plenty of control freaks have occupied the prime minister’s office before him. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is sometimes described as a control freak – but plenty of control freaks have occupied the prime minister’s office before him. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Is Canada's party discipline the strictest in the world? Experts say yes Add to ...

Part of Reinventing Parliament, a series examining how to make Parliament relevant again. With thanks to www.samaracanada.com

It’s not just a partisan rant from those who are dissatisfied with the current state of politics. Experts say Canada’s government really is more controlling and less tolerant of dissent than most other democracies in the free world.

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Almost all discourse in the Canadian Parliament is scripted by party staffers. Questions posed of the government rarely meet straight answers. Politicians vote as their party leaders dictate nearly 100 per cent of the time. Few private members’ initiatives get past first reading.

Do other countries do democracy better? The answer seems to be yes – if you subscribe to the belief that MPs should be free to speak their minds and to act as the voice of their constituents.

“There may be some exceptions in those African dictatorships that are part of the Commonwealth and so on,” says Leslie Seidle, a research director with the Institute for Research on Public Policy, “but in the advanced parliamentary democracies, there is nowhere that has heavier, tighter party discipline than the Canadian House of Commons. People are kicked out of their party temporarily for what are really very minor matters.”

Richard Simeon, a professor emeritus of political science and law at the University of Toronto and a member of the university’s School of Public Policy and Governance, agrees. “We are worse than the Australians, and much worse than the British, in terms of giving MPs the ability to act and to somehow make a difference,” said Dr. Simeon.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is sometimes described as a control freak – but plenty of control freaks occupied the office before him.

Alex Sévigny, the director of a communication management program at McMaster University in Hamilton, has been supervising a study of parliamentary civility for a number of years. He argues that the debates changed fundamentally when the proceedings began to be televised in the 1970s.

“Is it done better in other places? Yes,” Dr. Sévigny says. In countries like New Zealand, he said, the discourse is much more spontaneous and clever than it is in Canada. And also more on point.

During a recent debate in that country’s legislature, Prime Minister John Key was asked by an opposition leader to explain why he had said the filming of the movie The Hobbit would create 3,000 jobs. When Mr. Key asserted that the film had increased tourism, the opposition leader objected and the Speaker stopped the Prime Minister from going further. “I appreciate the member’s concern,” he said. “He asked a question, but he did not ask for that information.”

That’s a far cry from Canada, where responses from the government go unchecked even though they often have little bearing on what was asked.

But real responses are not expected in a milieu where the debate is so choreographed and where no one speaks without the approval of whips and party leaders.

Ned Franks, the constitutional scholar who is professor emeritus at Queen’s University in Kingston, says measures could be taken to give Canadian MPs more voice.

“The party leadership controls, one way or the other, in Parliament and outside, nominations and the allocations of members to committee. It controls the people who ask questions at Question Period. It controls who is allowed to speak in debate,” he says.

Cutting off that control, he argues, would increase the independence of the rank-and-file politician.

First, says Dr. Franks, the Speaker of the House of Commons should not merely accept lists of people who will ask questions during Question Period. Instead, he says, the Speaker should be free to choose the questioners. That would put an end to scripted questions, Dr. Franks explains.

Second, he says, MPs should be appointed to Commons committees at the start of a parliamentary session and remain in place for the duration with limited substitutions. That would allow them to develop expertise while reducing the control of the whips and the party leadership.

And third, Dr. Franks says, the party leadership should not be able to veto the nominations of candidates that have been chosen by their riding association. Then prime ministers would not be able to prevent MPs who fall out of line from running again.

Of course, some argue there are benefits to a system that is controlled from the centre.

In Canada, “if you’ve got a majority, you can ram stuff through and then you can be held accountable at the next election,” Dr. Simeon says. In a democracy, “you want participation, transparency, accountability, all that good stuff. But you also want governments that can make decisions and act on them.”

Both the opposition and the government know how to play the game and the media knows how to read it, Dr. Sévigny says.

So perhaps that’s just how our Parliament was meant to function. But is that a good thing?

“It depends on whether you want Question Period to be a highly scripted piece of political theatre,” Dr. Sévigny says. “That is something. And one shouldn’t discount it. But it isn’t something that is very accessible to the public and it doesn’t feel genuine to the public, because it isn’t.”

What’s the one thing you would change about Parliament to make it more relevant? Tell us here.

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